Matt Jones is the editor of the Hawgs Sports Network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has a bachelor's and master's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas.
Hogs, Horns took similar paths
November runs led rivals to Texas Bowl showdown
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, left, and Texas coach Charlie Strong will coach their first bowl game at their respective schools. (AP Photos)
FAYETTEVILLE — Slow starts and strong runs late in the regular season were storylines for both 6-6 teams in this month's Texas Bowl.
Postseason bids were anything but guaranteed for Arkansas and Texas by the end of October. The Razorbacks started the year 4-5 overall, while the Longhorns were once 3-5.
It took closer-than-expected losses for both teams on Oct. 11 to realize their potential, though their frustrations didn't end that day. Texas lost 31-26 to Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl, while Arkansas lost 14-13 to Alabama at home.
The Longhorns squeaked by Iowa State the following week and the Razorbacks never really had a chance against Georgia. The results were reversed the following week when Arkansas beat UAB and Texas was shut-out by Kansas State. Neither team had a winning record entering the month of November.
"I was sitting there at 2-4 and then at 3-5, and I’m sitting there saying, 'Oh, who are we going to beat to get to a bowl game?'" Texas coach Charlie Strong said.
Texas' run started with the only common opponent for the Longhorns and Razorbacks this season - Texas Tech. The Longhorns beat the Red Raiders 34-13 (the same margin Arkansas had won by earlier in the year) in Lubbock, starting a three-game win streak.
Texas followed the win by beating West Virginia 33-16 in Austin and Oklahoma State 28-7 on the road. Strong said beating the Mountaineers on Nov. 8 was the biggest game this season for his team.
"That was a game that we needed to win at home and hadn’t had a big win at home in a long time," Strong said. "You bring a ranked team into our stadium and just watch how our team was just all excited, so excited and just played so consistent. We were able to put it together in all three phases.
"We needed to win that game just for confidence because we hadn’t won a big game, especially when you talk about playing at home. You always want to win them all at home, but that was just a special victory for us.”
After another tough loss at Mississippi State on Nov. 1, Arkansas rested the weekend Texas beat West Virginia. One week later the Razorbacks put everything together in a 17-0 win over LSU to snap a 17-game conference losing streak.
Arkansas followed up with a 30-0 win the next week against Ole Miss to gain bowl eligibility.
"That’s when I began to feel that warm turn where our players, they were doing the things during the course of the game that we saw during the week," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "They really bought in to what we are selling on offense and defense."
Despite their late-season success, both teams enter the postseason with a one-game losing streak. Texas lost to TCU 48-10 at home on Thanksgiving, while Arkansas couldn't hold an 11-point lead in a 21-14 loss at Missouri the next day.
"I really felt (winning two straight games) was a huge step in the right direction, but we needed to go on the road and have success," Bielema said. "We stubbed our toe against Missouri and fell a little bit short. I think our guys have learned you actually learn more through failure than you do through success."
Strong said the loss to the Horned Frogs was tough on his players, adding, "I didn't have to say much because I think that they were embarrassed about it."
Their seasons weren't exactly alike. Arkansas went 2-6 in the SEC, while Texas was 5-3 in the Big 12. The Razorbacks were dominant in four nonconference games, while the Longhorns lost to BYU and UCLA.
But with their similar trajectory through the 2014 season, it's easy to see similarities in the programs.
While Texas is playing a bowl game for the fourth consecutive year, the Longhorns are in a rebuilding mode under their first-year head coach. The Razorbacks have been rebuilding for two years with Bielema. Arkansas last played a bowl game in 2011.
"This is going to be a really good matchup," Strong said. "You look at two teams that started off tough, but we both ended up heading in the right direction."
The bowl game will help shape the final perception of both programs' rebuilding year. The outcome will be the difference between a winning record and a losing one for both teams.
"(The game) is huge for the progress of our programs trying to build our brand," Bielema said. "It's been a little different, both of us taking over programs that were in a little bit of a struggle and getting to where we want to be.
"I think Coach Strong and I both envision bigger and better days for our program."
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